In a Time of Violence, Artists Probe Its Costs

Posted December 14, 2017 8:17 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — The wide halls, regal rooms and wrought-iron arches of the Park Avenue Armory have glorified military might since its founding during the Gilded Age. Now these same spaces will be the site of a 10-hour “convening” on Sunday by Carrie Mae Weems with the help of more than 50 artistic all-stars, centered on “interrogating the deep structures and multiple dimensions of violence, and how artists and thinkers respond to it,” she said.

Weems is a renowned photographer and installation artist, but her appearance at the armory is not a starring vehicle. Rather, it is “sort of a wonderful way of bringing a larger idea forward,” she explained during a series of conversations.

“I have been dealing with this idea of being a socially engaged and motivated artist since the very, very beginning of my career and very little has changed,” she said, her voice low and stentorian, yet warm. “Presidents have come and gone.”

The violence that concerns Weems “didn’t only come with the Trump presidency, but it certainly has intensified since the Trump presidency,” she said, pointing to the brutal attacks at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, which left a counterprotester dead and many injured.

The program Sunday is the culmination of her yearlong artistic residency at the armory, which began just as people around the country were knitting “pussy hats” and preparing to protest the presidential inauguration. “My chief preoccupation has been really grappling with and trying to understand in some small way the influence and the meaning of power,” she said. “This is a difficult and extraordinary political moment for the U.S.”

To that end, Weems, 64, has invited luminaries from the visual and performing arts (including MacArthur Foundation “geniuses,” like herself, and several Pulitzer Prize-winners) along with writers, professors and activists, to address violence of all kinds: domestic, political, racist, sexual, verbal, physical and environmental.

Among the highlights will be social practice artist Theaster Gates singing his own rendition of “God Bless America,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and other traditional patriotic tunes; filmmaker Arthur Jafa presenting his lauded short movie about racism, “Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death”; artist Shirin Neshat showing films about violence against women; composer David Lang performing and also speaking about “danger and honesty in both pop and classical music”; poet Elizabeth Alexander reading her own work; and artist Hank Willis Thomas presenting and discussing his film “A Person Is More Important Than Anything Else” (2014) on James Baldwin.

“When Carrie Mae asks something, you say, ‘yes,'” Thomas said.

Additionally, all Weems’ fellow artists-in-residence will open their studio spaces, along the armory’s second floor, and share work with the public. Playwright Lynn Nottage will be showing video works that she and her partner, Tony Gerber, created in a blighted area of Reading, Pennsylvania, the setting for her Pulitzer-winning play “Sweat.” Tania Bruguera’s presentation will revolve around young people at risk of deportation under DACA. Choreographer Reggie Gray, known as Regg Roc, will host open dance rehearsals of work that addresses incarceration and racial profiling.

One of the more unusual presentations will be an iPad and virtual reality show-and-tell with Navid and Vassiliki Khonsari, the husband and wife team who worked on “Grand Theft Auto III” and “Vice City” before they began designing games that let players experience the consequences of violence and of moral decision-making. A new game, to be released in a few weeks, puts players in the shoes of hot-zone journalists in peril.

“My biggest outrage is that we are moving to an era of de-prioritizing our shared humanity,” Vassiliki Khonsari said, “My work is the only way to try and counter the messaging that is being thrown at our communities, myself included, as a woman, as a mother, as a second-generation American”

The ornately wood-paneled room known as Company C — named for one of the former regiments based at the armory — is where Weems thought, wrote and rehearsed with collaborators during her residency, next to a plaque commemorating nearly 50 men who died in “the World War.” The armory has been affiliated with art since its first stone was laid in 1877, but its founders used the visual and decorative arts to glorify military, economic and political power. (The dozens of military and historical portraits hanging in its hallowed halls are all of white men.)

I wondered what it meant for Weems to be creating work here.

“I have been thinking about the history of violence for quite a while, but any time you are in a place that has echoes of that, it’s sure to become part of your consciousness,” she said, noting that the armory “and its historic meaning helped me to solidify my ideas.”

Company C has eight heavy, black iron chandeliers, each an elaborate tangle of various tools of war, including dangling meteor hammers and what looks to be scythes or swords.

“They are redolent of violence!” she laughed throatily. “You certainly wouldn’t want them to hit you!”

She’s known for a good sense of humor. But she also laughs seemingly in disbelief at what humans can do to each other, noting tragedies like the truck-terrorism in Manhattan on Halloween; the terrorist massacre in Orlando, Florida, at a gay nightclub in 2016; and the assassinations of political and civil rights leaders in the last half of the 20th century, which continue to loom large for her. She described her influences (David Cronenberg’s “The History of Violence” from 2005 was one of her favorite films) and the connections among her bodies of work, including “The Shape of Things” and her most recent work, “Grace Notes: Reflections for Now,” which she workshopped while in residency at the Armory.

She conceived “Grace Notes” in response to a white supremacist’s shooting rampage at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. “Grace” makes references to President Barack Obama singing “Amazing Grace” at the funeral of one of the nine people killed, and she told me, “how people maintain some aspect of their humanity and dignity in the face of extraordinary and deadly force and extend the gift of humanity to others.”

In that spirit, at the conclusion of the 10-hour event on Sunday, Jason Moran — the jazz pianist, composer and artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center — will play a 20-minute composition, “He Cares,” which weaves in the voice of a prisoner, Murray Macon, recorded in 1959 at the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana.

“You can hear the sound of people pulling on a chain, a steady long stream of chains,” Moran explained. “Hearing them unleashes something in me, they unleash a serenity and a way to cry — they unlock something.”

“I am playing that because at the end of what Carrie is planning for this day, I think people will need that — perhaps more than words,” he added. “I am thinking it will be a salve.”


Event Information:

“The Shape of Things”

Sunday from noon to 10 p.m., Park Avenue Armory, Manhattan; 212-933-5812, armoryonpark.org. Tickets for the entire day are $45.